Black Friday will have rules like never before. The volume restrictions that come with physical stores as they are today will not be able to accommodate the usual level of customers. Knowing this, the majority will be focused on positioning themselves for online selling.

I can’t stop thinking about what will become of the holidays. Will we all be waiting in lines at bricks-and-mortar stores? Will stores be closed on a state-by-state basis depending on COVID’S current scenario? Will shoppers wind around city blocks to get the newest TV? What will become of Black Friday?

Every day another piece of economic news is revealed. All one needs to do is wake up to Bloomberg citing facts like these: GDP shrank at a 32.9% annualized pace in the second quarter from the first, the most in quarterly records dating back to 1947, highlighting how the pandemic has ravaged businesses across the country.

Let’s start by taking a look at the overall holiday numbers as reported by Digital Commerce 360 upon completion of the 2019 season:

  • Total sales through all channels were $722.60 billion, a 4.1% lift from $694.32 billion in 2018; ecommerce accounted for nearly 60% of all retail gains during the holiday period.
  • Shoppers spent $138.65 billion online during the 2019 holiday season up 13.6% from $122.00 billion in 2018.
  • Online share of total retail sales in November/December soared to 19.2%, up from 17.6% in the prior year and the highest penetration recorded to date.
  • 6 million U.S. consumers shopped over the five-day period from Thanksgiving Day to Cyber Monday, resulting in a 14.3% increase from the $165.8 million in 2018.

While the numbers serve as a backdrop, much of this discussion will be on the mindset of the shopper and the fate of the retailer. With that in mind, I’ve built out a series of questions and have asked our editors to share their point-of-view. We will integrate these thoughts as we anticipate what the holidays will look like in 2020.

Will there be Black Friday or will all promotions take place online?

Black Friday will have rules like never before. The volume restrictions that come with physical stores as they are today will not be able to accommodate the usual level of customers. Knowing this, the majority will be focused on positioning themselves for online selling.

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Let’s put this in context. Black Friday sales for bricks-and-mortar stores in 2019 dropped 6.2% after shopping on Thanksgiving Day rose 2.3%, according to ShopperTrak data.

Conversely, Adobe reported that Black Friday came in second for the highest-grossing days of the 2019 season with $7.43 billion purchased online, up 19.6% from the $6.22 billion in 2018.

My prediction is that shoppers will do their buying online. Knowing these in-store circumstances, the opportunity to research deals online and consummate purchases in a single channel will be seen as the safest option among shoppers.

Revisiting Black Friday’s meaning

“Retailers will be wise to tame the Black Friday frenzy that usually takes place at stores and encourage shoppers to go online or spread out the ‘Black Friday’ promotions across a whole week so shoppers can get the deal without risking their health. Retailers do not want to have their store be the image of a crowded indoor space that shows up in news programs showcasing negligent behavior at the expense of consumerism.” And in fact, The Home Depot announced such an approach this week.

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It’s hard to say how everything will play out, but judging by the current projection of the coronavirus lockdowns, few retail deals will take place offline for Black Friday. Curbside pickup will likely try to fulfill the retail void, with deals offered online and perhaps exclusive sales for shoppers willing to wait in their vehicles for savings. I think the biggest question though, is how this season’s successes or failures will affect the face of future Black Fridays.”

What percentage of holiday business will be completed online?

Online’s share of total retail sales in November/December 2019 soared to 19.2%, up from 17.6% in the prior year and the highest penetration recorded to date.

Given the circumstances that retailers and their customers are experiencing, I will take an educated guess that online may get close to 25% penetration of retail sales. Ironically and independently, two others came to similar conclusions via different routes with perspective as follows:

“23%-25%-ish… In Q2, ecommerce penetration already hit 20.8%, according to numbers from the Commerce Department, and that captured April-June, which covered the largest pandemic-related surges in online sales. Even if ecommerce growth tapers off a bit in the interim, we’re still contending with virus spikes and staring down a fall and winter that medical experts anticipate will ramp up even more with infections. So I don’t see consumers feeling super comfortable heading to stores during the high-traffic holiday season. I think the penetration trends will stick around. And historically, Q4 is the period in the year when digital takes the biggest piece of the pie.”

“My estimate is closer to 25%. Ecommerce accounted for 18% in Q4 2019 and I think it’ll be considerably higher than that. 20% of sales during Q2 2020 was online, and if we assume the flu + coronavirus season is going to keep many people at home through the rest of the year, the holidays will likely see even more folks shopping online. Other factors also come into play: Will families and friends get together during the holidays? Will more people ship each other gifts? Probably.

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What will be the role of the physical store?

The physical store will take a huge hit. Many retailers will have already reduced their footprint as a result of the pandemic and prior tenuous circumstances. Some stores may already be closed for good. Other stores may start out open and, as the season progresses, have to close since the COVID-19 situation is fluid. There is no doubt that the ramifications will be significant. Stores will likely be restricted in their capacity to welcome shoppers, keeping their volume to a minimum. As shoppers face the prospect of waiting in lines to get in, I predict their attention span will be reduced, with in-store browsing taking a hit. Amidst a socially distant backdrop, ecommerce will undoubtedly benefit, as some shoppers will not return to physical stores at all. Others may skip making the purchase altogether and this is where we need to be concerned.

“The physical store will act more as a pickup and fulfillment center for shoppers this holiday season. Shoppers will want to avoid going into crowded, indoor public spaces and will not want to wait in line outside of a store in the cold. Instead, shoppers will continue to flock online to buy goods, and physical stores will fulfill those orders with either ship-from-store or curbside pickup.”

“No matter one’s perspective, I think the role of the physical store will be greatly diminished. Why risk COVID-19 when you can buy stuff online and have your gifts sent directly to the recipients? A lot of people who love going to the mall over the holiday will skip it this year. And people who never liked physical shopping will lean heavily on ecommerce.”

Local and location is more critical than ever

“Much of the answer to this question also will depend on a store’s location—and whether COVID is widespread or not. Stores in areas where the virus isn’t as prevalent might be able to gingerly continue to operate store shopping decently.”

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“It also depends on weather: If stores are hit with the double whammy of consumers encouraged to stay home and almost bitter cold/hazardous weather, they might really suffer come November/December.”

“Local stores will get a lift from shoppers trying to keep their community economies alive. That could mean local shoppers ordering online from neighborhood shops that offer it, using curbside, BOPIS etc. at their favorite local stores. One can’t help but feel a tug to the heartstrings as the American Express ‘Shop Small’ campaign blankets the airwaves.”

When it comes to the physical store, omnichannel may propel ecommerce as it has this entire year. While 55% of last year’s shoppers in our Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Pre-Holiday survey of 1,055 online shoppers indicated that they would place an online order for pickup, one can expect both increased frequency among existing users as well as new adopters given current circumstances. While curbside only saw expected usage of 16%, it is in this area that we will likely see the greatest gains. Consumers have gravitated to this most convenient form of shopping reporting positive results. As much of the country faces the prospect of winter, curbside’s value becomes increasingly important.

Curbside projections from Digital Commerce 360/Bizrate Insights August 2020 Click Ship survey of 1,141 online shoppers reveals that almost equal numbers had purchased nonessential goods for pickup (curbside 26% vs. in-store 25%).

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Alternative pickup models abound

“Curbside, BOPIS, fulfill-from-store, even reserve-in-store will all become the norm and will be offered by any and all shops that can swing it in any capacity. (Likely some sloppily executed and some wonderfully.)”

Some stores will fully convert to become “dark stores” or micro-fulfillment centers in areas where store traffic isn’t picking up or shelter in place orders continue. Not open to the public, a dark store is a retail distribution center that caters exclusively to online shopping and is in a location that offers good access to many customers (such as urban areas) and roads.

Will curbside be the store savior and can retailers accommodate the projected holiday volume?

Because the desire to go to stores will have been diminished among shoppers, curbside will be the store savior. Those retailers who have invested in curbside will be in a strong position, particularly as their customers have already tested such services and will be looking to do even more in a world of uncertainty. For those retailers who are newer to the service, their customers will be willing to take a chance particularly in the dead of winter.

Yes, in fact, as one editor added into the discussion, “A lot of that depends on the customer.” Some are itching to get back into stores for retail therapy and won’t want to substitute curbside, while others are going to be apprehensive about dealing with holiday shopping traffic. Not many retailers have quite figured out how to handle more than a few pickup orders per hour successfully. Those that have will likely recover sales, but those that haven’t are going to run into many problems.

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“One retailer that really seemed to figure out curbside pickup early on during the pandemic was Dick’s Sporting Goods. My husband and I ordered a kayak, paddles and life vests and had the items fulfilled within the hour. There was also a steady stream of vehicles picking up other items while we were there, and each had a short wait time.”

“A lot of retailers also depend on impulse and browsing buys, which happens a lot during Black Friday. Shoppers will go to a store for one item, see a decent ‘deal’ on a random product and think to themselves that it might be a good gift for a relative or friend, or at least make a stocking stuffer. Retailers lose that with the intentionality of curbside pickup.”

“People will still want to buy gifts they intend to give in-person. But curbside pickup is safer—and in some cases easier—than going into a store. Stores with good curbside service will benefit. How well retailers can accommodate holiday volume comes down to their willingness to hire and train enough staff and predict their inventory needs accurately.”

Of course, there are space constraints. Thinking outside of the box, “Curbside I think will help a lot of retailers during the holidays, but I do wonder if some popular retailers will hit a capacity, particularly ones that don’t have large parking lots. How do you manage high traffic?”

All of these insights are valid and should be part of the discussion as the holiday season is upon us.

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